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23 June 2021

How Brexit changed us: Brexit should never have become so polarised

The way the public and, more importantly, parliament, polarised into two rival camps – hard Brexit versus second referendum – was remarkable.

By Anand Menon

We academics get complexity. In fact, we thrive on it. Indeed, there are those who accuse us of creating it where it need not exist. Yet anyone who understood the European Union knew, long before the referendum, that ending 40-plus years of membership was going to be a complicated business.

Equally, there were those who understood the complications of the UK’s devolution settlement, particularly the close interrelationship of the Good Friday Agreement with the fact of UK and Irish EU membership. They, at least, would have known the potential problems of any Brexit that saw the UK leave the single market and customs union.

But two things have taken me aback since the referendum. First, the apparent ignorance of the British state when it comes to these realities. Certainly, politicians have displayed wilful ignorance, whether it be Theresa May not understanding why the markets plummeted after her 2016 Conservative conference speech, or the wheeze put forward by her colleagues that drones could resolve the Irish border problem, or the (and this is the charitable interpretation) misunderstanding on the part of Boris Johnson of what the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland actually said.

But it wasn’t just politicians. The last five years have underlined the lack of deep understanding of these issues among the civil service. This reflected the hollowing out of EU expertise across Whitehall, coupled with an ideological aversion in government to utilising what EU expertise was available. Indeed, in many cases such expertise was seen as compromising the individuals in whom it resided.

Second, polarisation. Yes, the referendum was divisive, and yes, that should have surprised no one. But the way the public and, more importantly, parliament, polarised into two rival camps – hard Brexit versus second referendum – was remarkable.

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The hollowing out of the centre ground was as apparent in the pressure applied by the People’s Vote crowd movement to supporters of a soft Brexit as in Boris Johnson’s ruthless dismissal of those who disobeyed him.

The path from a close-run referendum in which even proponents of Leave were talking about trade continuing as before to the rupture of today, was certainly not one I had predicted. Even academics can get things wrong, you know.

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Anand Menon is the director of UK in a Changing Europe and a professor of European Politics at King’s College, London

This article is from our “How Brexit changed us” series, marking five years since the referendum.